RAMALLAH, West Bank - With a giant poster of deceased leader Yasir Arafat smiling over them, the Palestine Liberation Organization's central council gathered here yesterday to indefinitely extend Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' term until credible elections can be held.
The extension, expected to be formally approved today, should provide a degree of short-term stability to the fractured Palestinian movement.
But for some, the stopgap measure only papers over an emerging PLO leadership crisis that could become yet another obstacle to peace talks.
"We're at a political dead end," said Mustafa Bargouthi, a member of the central council and political adversary of Abbas.
He questioned whether Fatah, the dominant PLO party that administers parts of the West Bank, or its rival Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is serious about holding elections. "They are happy with the status quo, because both have concentrated the power and are able to practice authority without accountability," Bargouthi said.
Abbas, who was elected Palestinian Authority president after Arafat's 2004 death, was supposed to face reelection next month. The vote was postponed, for the second time in a year, after Hamas said it would prohibit polling in Gaza. The Islamist-run party, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, seized control of Gaza in 2007, spurring a collapse of the power-sharing agreement it had forged with the secular Fatah.
With today's expected council endorsement, Abbas, 74, will keep the power reins in the West Bank for at least six more months. By that time, Palestinians hope to settle the Fatah-Hamas split and reschedule a vote.
Abbas has said he does not want to run in the next election. Those close to him say he is tired and frustrated by the lack of progress in peace talks. Such talk has raised concerns inside the PLO and worried the United States and Israel, which view Abbas as a moderate who disavows violence.
In his speech yesterday, Abbas vented his frustration at both the United States and Israel, which he said had failed to do enough to put peace negotiations back on track. In particular, Palestinians want Israel to halt construction of new housing on land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that Israel captured in 1967.
Instead, the Israeli government has agreed to a partial 10-month freeze in the West Bank that would limit construction to completing 3,000 units in various stages of construction. Israel is also continuing to approve building in contested parts of Jerusalem.
Despite Abbas' repeated threats to step aside, many PLO leaders believe he can be persuaded to run again. But others inside the PLO have voiced frustration with what they see as the group's lack of direction and single-minded pursuit of peace talks. Still others favor a return to violence or rebellion.
Hamas leaders, who held a massive rally Monday to celebrate the organization's 22d anniversary, show no signs of warming to Abbas. They said they would reject any extension of his presidential term as illegitimate.
Angry settlers beat and seriously injured an Israeli police officer yesterday as she tried
to enforce a government ban on new housing construction in Jewish West Bank settlements, police said.
The clash was the most serious since the building restrictions were imposed last month. Settlers have vowed to defy the orders and have confronted government inspectors, scuffling with them.
Police spokesman Gil Elhadad said about 100 settlers, most of them teenagers, burned tires and blocked the entrance yesterday to the settlement of Tsofit. Some jumped the officer and beat her, breaking several ribs, he said. He did not give her name or age. The office was taken to a hospital with serious injuries, he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the 10-month moratorium on construction of new housing in the West Bank as a gesture to the Palestinians, hoping they would resume peace negotiations. Palestinian leaders have rejected the move.